About Stanley Cavell

Stanley Cavell is one of the leading American philosophers of the past century.  Within the analytic philosophical tradition, he is especially well known for his work on J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Ordinary Language Philosophy. Within the Humanities more broadly, he is best known for his work on film, literature, and aesthetic theory. 

His philosophical interests span both the analytical and Continental traditions. Much of his work is also concerned with the question what it would mean for America to express itself philosophically. This has led him to do pathbreaking work both in the history of American philosophy (especially on Emerson and Thoreau), as well as on topics having to do with distinctively American forms of artistic expression in the arts (especially in connection with certain classic Hollywood movies). 

Within his work on literature, perhaps the most famous instances are his essays on Shakespeare and on Romanticism. Within film theory, he is especially known for his work on questions of aesthetic medium and genre, and for his discovery of the following two genres: the Hollywood comedy of remarriage and the melodrama of the unknown woman.

Cavell was born September 1, 1926 to a Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia. He first trained in music, graduating with a Bachelor of the Arts in music at Berkeley in 1947. Shortly after being accepted at Julliard, where he was studying composition, his interests turned from the study of music to philosophy. He began graduate study at the Philosophy Department at UCLA and then transferred to the graduate program at Harvard. As a graduate student in Philosophy at Harvard, he first encountered the visiting J.L. Austin, whose philosophical teaching and methods, Cavell says, "knocked him off...[his] horse."  

From 1953 to 1956, he remained at Harvard as a Junior Fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows.  He then moved to the Department of Philosophy at Berkeley where he taught for six years, before returning to Harvard in 1963, where he was named the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value -- a position he held until 1997, when he became Professor Emeritus.  

Professor Cavell is a Past President of the American Philosophical Association and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.  Among his other honors are a fellowship at Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities in 1970-71; the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award in Criticism, from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; the Centennial Medal from Harvard’s Graduate School; the Romanell Phi Beta Kappa Professorship; and a number of honorary degrees, including Doctor Honoris Causa of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon. 

He has published eighteen books, including Must We Mean What We Say?  (1969);The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (1971); The Senses of Walden(1972); The Claim of Reason (1979); Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981); Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare (1987);Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida (1995); Cities of Words(2004); and his autobiographical memoir, Little Did I Know, appeared in the fall of 2010.  

A detailed bibliography of Cavell's primary works may be found here.

You can learn more about Cavell in this article published originally in The Chronicle of Higher Education.